Edward Neather: Common Origins of Music and Language

The advance publicity for this talk promised us an exposition of how ideas about the common origins of music and language had developed since the eighteenth century. But the ground covered was far more extensive, beginning with consideration of Neanderthal man now thought to have had some use of music and language, and the ancient Greeks’ concept of music, embodying elements of melody, verse and dance. Edward told us that from a young age he had been very interested in the interaction of music and language, and this led him to exploring such matters as the idea that music preceded language and the conclusion that there are no primitive languages, only different ones.

Famous names from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries came into play; the German philosopher Johan Herder, was an early influence, who studied the origins of language, with one ear on the importance of birdsong, Jean-Jaques Rousseau who detected syllables in rhythm and sound, and Ludwig van Beethoven whose Pastoral Symphony was intended to convey the emotional feelings of being in the countryside rather than to paint pictures of rural scenes.

Coming up to date Edward stressed the importance of the work of the contemporary academic Stephen Pinker who in his book How the Mind Works put forward the view that music and language are fundamentally different, a point exemplified to some extent by Beethoven but quite different from the convictions of our lecturer who is convinced that in all the civilisations that have been studied, music in its broadest sense preceded speech.

He touched on the contributions of Charles Darwin whose view was influenced by his work on evolution. For a long time he had real problems with music. He could not see that it fitted into his theory that all human traits assisted with evolution. Eventually in his book The Descent of Man he saw music and rhythms being adapted to attract the opposite sex, a phenomenon exemplified in birdsong, and sometimes known as the Caruso Theory.

In a wide ranging survey of his subject, Edward introduced us to such fascinating concepts as ‘motherese’ or ‘infant directed speech’ used in all eras and cultures by parents to begin communicating with their children, and ‘click languages’, of great importance in the study of the  development of languages. He touched too on recent advances in the use of modern brain scans contributing to our understanding of the roles of the temporal and frontal lobes, shedding light on the interaction of the musical and linguistic functions of the brain.

Edward is clearly committed to his theory of the common origins of music and language but with academic candour conceded that not all his contemporaries agree. He quoted one distinguished author Maggie Tallerman who has concluded that ‘musical protolanguage is …. an evolutionary cul-de-sac.’

Edward and Frances Canning

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